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Slow train to Winnipeg

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There is no fast train to Winnipeg. VIA Rail’s meandering service from Vancouver to Winnipeg fits a country that’s meant to be savoured. Yes, you could fly in under three hours, but if you’re looking for a more immersive experience and can spare three days, take the train. It’s not meant to be fast.

Leah and I checked in at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver on a sunny, Friday morning in late July. The forest fires that shrouded most of western Canada were still two weeks away and clear skies beckoned. Friends had been surprised to learn of a rail connection. Almost as surprised as by our destination. True, Winnipeg’s not the first place you think of for a summer holiday, but we live on the Sunshine Coast. A break from tourists would be good for the soul.

Our noon departure left 15 minutes late, but few passengers seemed to notice. Most people were busy exploring their new home for the next two nights; four nights for Toronto-bound passengers.

Private sleeping quarters in Prestige class come with your own concierge.

A large American tour party, each traveller wearing a name badge, patrolled the corridors for the first hour, marvelling at the cleverly concealed shower closets, the premium-class cabins and the viewing cars. With 72 hours ahead of us, we decided to pace ourselves, watching East Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster pass us by before venturing from our seats.

VIA Rail trains come in three classes and various carriage designations. The best views are to be had in the Skyline cars with their scenic dome sections, and the Panorama car, which features windows to the ceiling. The Park car in the caboose is an elegant throwback to bygone lounge luxury and is limited to the train’s Prestige passengers at certain times of the day.

Prestige is the priciest of VIA’s three travelling classes, offering private sleeping quarters and a personal concierge. We travelled in Sleeper Plus, which saw our seats being transformed by a carriage attendant at night into comfy bunk beds shrouded behind a thick curtain. (The attendant reverses the process in the morning while you’re at breakfast.) For Economy Class, picture your seat becoming a La-Z-Boy with pillow and blanket. All meals are included in the price for Prestige and Sleeper Plus.

An excellent three-course lunch, including a sautéed prawn and scallop salad, set the tone for our meals ahead. Duck, rack of lamb, and beef wellington were among the hot, fresh dinners somehow served from a tiny kitchen, which also offered vegetarian options for every dining course. Canadian wines and craft beer choices from Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, were a nice surprise too. We soon got to know our Winnipeg-based crew, who were proud of their hometown and quick with recommendations.

Seats by day transform into bunk beds by night in Sleeper Plus.

Meal times presented a chance to meet fellow passengers – mostly American visitors, including one woman from San Francisco who had been suffering Trump-induced anxiety attacks. “Two days with no news has done me the world of good,” she confided.

There were other little surprises along the way. Complimentary mimosas went down well on Saturday morning while stuck for an hour outside of Jasper. Informal wine tasting with one of the crew in the dome car eased us through the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. Lounge car patrons were entertained by a classical guitarist in an afternoon performance.

The real star of the show though was the view, otherwise known as Canada. First criss-crossing the Fraser River and then the Thompson, the train follows a route largely uncharted by the highway. At dinner on Friday night, heads swivelled to see a series of attractions appearing on or by the Thompson: a solitary eagle, a herd of elk, an abandoned church and a forgotten Chevy truck, circa 1960, all punctuated the dry beige canvas of thirsty cottonwoods and parched underbrush.

Dinner-time distractions as we skirt the Thompson River near Kamloops, BC.

Sun set to be replaced by a full, blood moon. It cast its spell on us as we settled into our bunks and watched it rise, glowing red and irresistible over Kamloops Lake. I fell asleep realizing that after almost 12 hours on the train, I had yet to crack a book or suggest a game of Yahtzee with Leah.

VIA Rail’s not quiet. There were times during the night that I thought a crash was imminent, such was the screeching on the rails. “You’ve got all day to nap,” I told myself as I opened the blind to see daybreak in the Rockies. Our attendant told us we’d made good time overnight, getting up to 80 kilometres an hour, which might have explained the noise.

After a night on the train it was good to stretch our legs in Jasper on the Discovery Trail.

The American tour party alighted at Jasper where the remaining passengers had a couple of hours to explore. In minutes we were walking Jasper’s Discovery Trail, heading towards Old Fort Point. At the first viewpoint overlooking the city, a menacing gang of Bighorn Sheep blocked our path. We hesitated for 10 minutes, taking photos from a distance. The sheep looked less menacing when a jogger breezed right by them.

Bighorn Sheep – not so menacing in hindsight.

It took all day to reach Edmonton. Numerous stops for freight traffic, (which have priority) including a two-hour standstill, put us in at 7 p.m., a few hours behind schedule. We disembarked to skip rope a while on the platform (three solid meals a day and a sedentary lifestyle take their toll) and take photos of the City of Champions in the distance. By 8 a.m. the next morning after a better night’s sleep, we’d caught up an hour or two and were in Saskatoon for another 20-minute stroll on the platform.

Our final day of gazing out of the window introduced us to place names that seemed to herald a story: Punnichy, Ituna, Spy Hill and Atwater – population 30. Potash mines are the only hills on the Prairies, looming on the horizon occasionally like elongated pyramids. The old, wooden grain silos, so iconic to this region, seemed harder to find. Kelliher, Saskatchewan produced a nice one though.

Our last stop before Winnipeg was Melville, Sask., home of the Melville Millionaires junior hockey team and named after Grand Trunk Railway president, Charles Melville Hays, who died on the Titanic. We rolled into Winnipeg at 8.40 p.m., 90 minutes late but still warm and sunny outside.

We never did play Yahtzee!

 

 

 

 

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Get up, stand up!

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With ocean and an abundance of lakes and tidal rapids, stand-up paddleboarders are spoiled for choice on the Sunshine Coast. Photo by Alpha Adventures

One evening last year, Jamie Mani was driving home late after coaching at Chatelech Secondary, where he teaches. Awed by the beautiful sunset at Davis Bay, he instinctively pulled over to inflate his stand-up paddleboard. A few minutes later, he was plying the calm ocean with just the setting sun and a rising full moon for company: alone, or so he thought.

“This whale appears,” recalls Mani. “So, it was just me, a whale, the sunset and a full moon!”

Whether on an inflatable or a hard version, a stand-up paddleboard, or SUP as it’s commonly known, offers a variety of escapes depending on your location. On the Sunshine Coast that could mean a peaceful, flatwater glide on Trout Lake; a touring adventure up Sechelt inlet on boards equipped with dry-bags full of gear under deck-line bungees; or an ocean jaunt to Keats Island or Pasley Island off Gibsons. For experienced SUP boarders, there’s world-class surfing at the Skookumchuk near Egmont.

“We’re so lucky on the Sunshine Coast, we have access to so many styles and bodies of water – coves, lakes, inlets, open strait, wave, no-wave,” says Mani. “And on any given day, if you’re willing to travel, you’re probably going to find calm water.”

Even old people can standup paddleboard! Hitomi Makino photo

Mani runs the Wilson Creek-based outdoor adventure store, Alpha Adventures, and was among the first group of instructors to be certified to teach SUP by Paddle Canada. He introduced SUP to the Sunshine Coast through Alpha shortly after trying it while on vacation in Hawaii.

“It was early to mid 2000s and in Hawaii, SUP was already taking off. I rented a board and loved the experience. Having been a kayak guide for decades, I do love paddling. But paddle-boarding is a completely different interaction with the water. I could go surfing on it. But I could also just look down at a reef, see turtles, see fish, check out the sunset. There the visibility is so good, it was almost like I was snorkelling, but standing up.”

An avid old-school surfer, Mani quickly realized another SUP advantage.

“I’d always liked surfing so when I saw those other surfers on SUPs, I thought: ‘It looks so easy because they’re out of the water, and they are able to catch waves, and they are always back out in the lineup way faster than any of us.

“That was kind of my second epiphany; this is amazing and I’m getting older, so this is easier, so it was a natural. Whether or not it was going to work for the business, we knew it was going to be part of our lives. We were hooked.”

During the mid-2000s, as the boards began to appear in adventure stores like Alpha, many viewed SUP as a craze, sure to be short-lived.

“One of our customers, who’s actually a teaching colleague, said to me: ‘Is this going to be the Crocs of watersports?’ I can almost remember the day he came in seven years later, and he said: “I was wrong. I’d like to know more about buying a board.

“We’ve always had a strong instructional component in our business, our foundation is on teaching and lessons. We really worked hard at getting people out on the water and realizing, we don’t live in a high surf area, so you can paddle in flat water conditions, sheltered coves, lots of lakes, calm days in open water like Davis Bay.

Alpha Adventures rents and sells boards, runs lessons, and hosts Summer SUP nights. Alpha Adventures photo

“It took a little while for people to realize, I can find a use for this where I live here on the Sunshine Coast.”

Board designs have changed a lot from the 12-foot behemoths that launched the sport. For surfing, SUPs are becoming shorter with more rocker (a more dramatic curve in the board upward from nose to tail) allowing quicker turns. Hybrid SUPs are good for calm, sunset paddles or small waves at the beach. Boards are increasingly tailored to weight and body size, says Mani, with children a growing demographic. There are even highly stable SUPs for anglers!

For the extra-adventurous, there’s foil boarding, which incorporates a hydrofoil beneath the board to elevate it and create the experience of levitating across the waves. “It’s just jazzy, you’re flying!” says Mani, who is bringing a foil board to the store.

What hasn’t changed about SUP is the benefit of instruction and the need for safety.

“I see people out paddleboarding, and there’s no personal flotation device (PFD) on their vessel or on their body. They don’t have a leash, and they’re definitely not prepared to fall in the water.”

Alpha’s SUP lessons spend about 20 minutes on land discussing the board, stance, style, and safety.

“The lesson philosophy is that it’s a whole paddling experience. It’s not just ‘hey, this is a board, here’s how to paddle.’ We look at safety considerations, the weather, immersion gear.”

That way, everyone is prepared, says Mani. Perhaps for a whale, even!

Alpha Adventures photo

Going downhill. Fast!

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“Tobogganing, which has sprung into such sudden popularity, is only a form of coasting. There is no more exciting and exhilarating sport for ladies and gentlemen than this on a clear, cold winter evening.”

  • Modern Manners and Social Forms: A Manual of the Manners and Customs of the Best Modern Society, James Bethuel Smiley, 1890

On the eastern slopes of Dakota Ridge, Emma Judd prepares for takeoff!

 

Even down at sea level and despite its name, the Sunshine Coast is no stranger to snow. Anyone who has grown up here can attest to cold snaps and snow days. Despite claiming to be 29, my mum-in-law Mary Vandeberg recalls the winter of 1954 vividly.

“We spent a lot time tobogganing down Davis Bay hill that winter,” says Mary. “We had spotters, but there really wasn’t much traffic to speak of in those days. And if there was, it wasn’t getting up that hill.”

Trouble with a capital T, Mary Vandeberg with her sister Gail somewhere on a road near Davis Bay, circa 1954.

For Mary’s daughter, my wife Leah, tobogganing the road down from Chatelech Secondary, was the ultimate way to celebrate a snow day.

Even in the snowiest winters of recent years, it’s difficult to image tobogganing Highway 101 from Selma Park down to Davis Bay, as Mary describes. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other popular places to slide.

Located 14-km up the forest service road at the end of Field Road in Wilson Creek, Dakota Ridge is one of the few, if not the only sanctioned sliding area on the Sunshine Coast. Created in 2013, the sliding area has become a popular addition to the winter recreation venue, accounting for 30 percent of total traffic, according to the Sunshine Coast Regional District.

Especially popular with young families, the groomed hill is right behind a Quonset warming hut, which is equipped with a wood stove and picnic tables. If you’re craving some off-piste thrills, there’s a long, gentle clearing off Balsam Loop on Dakota Ridge’s eastern slope that’s perfect for building bumps and jumps.

We have liftoff! Ariana Harder takes to the skies above Dakota Ridge.

Local Cavin Crawford, who’s helped plow access roads to Dakota Ridge and the Tetrahedron for years, recommends a 200-metre slope at the eight-kilometre mark of the forestry road, near the turnoff for Dakota Bowl.

“You can drive up around the corner, let the kids out and drive down and pick them up,” says Cavin. “But please, do not toboggan on the road.”

Winter tires and chains are essential, if you’re planning to drive to Dakota Ridge; or catch the scheduled shuttle with Wilson Creek-based Alpha Adventures.

Closer to sea level, school fields are popular with the younger crowd. “The slope behind Gibsons elementary is good for younger kids and pretty good for building jumps,” says 12-year-old Kaishan Nonacowie. There’s also a gentle slope behind Elphinstone Secondary.

Flume Beach Park at the junction of Flume Road and Beach Avenue in Roberts Creek might be the closest you’ll get to sledding on the shoreline. It was a favourite spot when my kids were growing up and offers the added advantage of a scenic picnic area, plus the option of building a beach fire to warm up by.

In their element, Ariana Harder and Emma Judd on Dakota Ridge.

A poll of friends and family on Facebook elicited numerous favourite spots and a theme quickly developed: roads seem to be where it’s at. Some short, some steep, and most dead-ends. (My son suggested School Road in Gibsons, which might have been feasible in 1917-18, but not 2017-18.) While there’s room for discretion on secluded roads in particularly heavy snowfalls, as a rule, cars and toboggans don’t mix, especially for emergency services, highway maintenance contractors, and stranded residents.

Back in the 1970s, it was a different story, according to life-long Coast resident, Warren Hansen.

“My favourite hill was Benner Road, in Selma Park,” recalls Warren. “Back then, there was no such things as immediate plowing. People had to park on the highway in Selma Park and walk up to their homes. For at least a couple of days, kids could slide down Benner Road, or the top of Snodgrass and Chartwell, or the top of Radcliffe Road. Every kid from miles around would converge on this location.

“I remember a bunch of us piled on a toboggan racing other toboggans down the hill. We knew that once we passed a certain driveway it was time to bail otherwise we would blow the corner and get hurt. And most kids did get hurt from getting run into, going into the ditch, or bailing off the sled sliding at breakneck speeds.”

Mary Vandeberg and her sister Gail in the snowy Sunshine Coast winter of 1954.

Hansen acknowledges those days are over, but has mixed feelings.

“The plows, climate change and over-sensitive parents ruined the great sliding opportunities on Benner Road, which hasn’t been the same since those days. Then again, it could be because I grew up and know now that I would never let my kids slide on Benner Road.”

Wherever you end up sliding this winter, keep a few precautions in mind. BC Children’s Hospital recommends that young ones wear a ski, hockey, or bike helmet for tobogganing. Make sure your kids know how to control their speed and stop properly. Choose a slope away from roads and free from obstacles, such as rocks, trees, and fences. Never ride on a sled that is being pulled by anything motorized.

Bundle up, stay safe, and enjoy the snow!

 

The one that didn’t get away

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Ryan Judd consoles himself with the thought that it’s a dry cold, as he patiently waits for a bite.

Brad Knowles doesn’t care much for bananas. Not when he’s fishing, at least.

“Did you bring bananas?” he asks from the driver’s seat.

I check with my son Ryan, sitting across from me in the back of Brad’s truck. No, we didn’t bring bananas. We check our packed lunch. No bananas, although the hot chocolate seems to have spilled.

Bananas will jinx fishing every time,” says Brad, who double checks that his assistant guide, Matt, has not brought bananas. Matt, a bass fisherman from Mississauga – where he’s known to some as “The Bassassassin” – knows better than to bring bananas.

We’re on our way to Blackwater Lake, about an hour out of Whistler, east of Pemberton. From mid-November to late-March, give or take, the 6.5-kilometre lake near D’Arcy is ice fishing country.

6.5-kilometre Blackwater Lake, about an hour out of Whistler, east of Pemberton.

At this time of year, Brad’s company, Pemberton Fish Finder, runs ice fishing tours. “It’s for people who want to escape the Whistler bubble and experience the lakes, wildlife, catch some fish and listen to some stories,” says Brad.

Brad has lots of stories. He grew up in Pemberton and is something of a local celebrity, starring in his own fishing show on Whistler Cable for a while. Together with running a fishing store, Pemberton Fish Finder keeps him busy year round.

My only adult fishing story involves a crab trap and a capsized canoe. I had always assumed ice fishing would involve a flight to Prince George or Edmonton.

Brad Knowles, owner-operator of Pemberton Fish Finder.

Blackwater Lake is idyllic. Serrated peaks loom all around us and under blue sky, the ice is blinding. The air temperature is just below freezing, there’s no wind, and the sun is flirting with the clouds. But for a creek in the distance, the only thing I can hear is my heart beating.

“Australians lose their marbles when they see this,” says Brad. “They ask me, ‘You’re sure we can stand on this?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m 300 pounds, you can stand on this.’”

Brad sets about cutting holes in the ice with a gas-powered auger. He and Matt set us up with rods and we bait the hooks with freshwater shrimp, which are native to the lake. Everyone gets an upturned bright orange bucket and a thermal pad to sit on.

And that’s it, we’re ice fishing.

We immediately get bites. Brad and Matt coach us on setting the hook, otherwise known as the hook-set – a quick upward thrust of the rod before reeling in. One by one though, we lose the bites and rue our bad luck.

“Well there’s a reason it’s called fishing and not catching,” says Brad.

After about an hour, Brad carves out new holes and we spread out. Under his guidance, I switch bait from shrimp to trout roe. Ryan and Matt are several hundred yards away but the air is so still, it’s easy to talk without raising our voices.

A lone whisky jack keeps us company, occasionally stealing a shrimp from the bait bucket, and otherwise mocking us.

A lone whisky jack steals bait and taunts us.

Brad’s been fishing in this region for about 35 years, chasing all five salmon species, plus pike minnows, steelhead, cutthroat, bull, brook, lake and rainbow trout. Together with his dad, Ivan, and his brother, Sheridan, Brad has carved out a living here and now employs his wife in the guiding business while raising three kids.

“There’s not a day I don’t wake up and look at the mountains, excited to go to work,” he says. I can see why. Fish or no fish, Blackwater Lake is quite an office. There’s a small forestry campground nearby with a dozen sites and in summer, lily pads and extensive weed beds flourish here. And somewhere beneath our boots and buckets today are rainbow trout ranging from 10 to 25 inches and weighing as much as six pounds.

Just as I’m beginning to think the shrimp bait looks tasty we decide that it’s lunchtime.

Brad carves pairs of holes a few inches apart and sets up a shelter in seconds. We’re not cold but from inside the shelter the water appears even clearer through holes that take on a luminous quality. “Sometimes you can see the fish before you catch them,” says Brad. For now, we watch our bait descend beyond sight and remain ever hopeful.

No bites but the sandwiches help.

As 2 o’clock nears, Brad suggests we concentrate on a shaded corner of the lake. We exit the shelter and set up one last time, trying to ignore the creeping cold. I start to wonder whether one of us is actually carrying a concealed banana. Then I think back to growing up in the UK. As a schoolboy, I used to accompany friends on night-fishing trips in the Kent countryside. In two years of those fishing trips, I never caught anything but a cider hangover. It occurs to me that not only have I never caught a fish, I’ve never actually seen anyone else catch a fish.

Perhaps I’m cursed?

One rainbow trout, about 10 inches long and just in time for dinner!

I decide not to share this thought with Ryan, and instead concentrate on the hole, which I realize is freezing before my very eyes. Then I’m shaken from my thoughts.

“YEAH!” shouts Brad. I turn just in time to see the rod bend for a moment and a plump rainbow trout flop into Brad’s palm. “No way we were going before we got one,” says Brad as we celebrate the catch. It’s closer to the 10-inch end of the scale and a beautiful looking fish.

Hopeful of more to come we continue fishing for another half an hour, but to no avail. “That’s fishing,” says Brad philosophically as he drops us back in Whistler. Ryan and I both warm up while a friend cooks our catch. It’s more than worth the wait: fresh, flavorful and not even a hint of banana.

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If you go

For more information about guided ice fishing trips with Pemberton Fish Finder, visit pembertonfishfinder.com.

Do not bring bananas.

Trail and tribulation in Powell River

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Make it to the top of Tin Hat Mountain and you will be rewarded with 360-degree views of more than two-dozen lakes. Plus you’re half way to finishing the trail! Photos courtesy Eagle Walz

Connecting Sarah Point, near Lund, to the ferry terminal at Saltery Bay, the 180-kilometre Sunshine Coast Trail now ranks among the greatest hiking trails in the world, according to Explore Magazine’s Top-50 list. Not only is it more than twice the length of the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, it’s Canada’s longest hut-to-hut hiking trail, and it’s free!

The trail’s mix of old growth forest, mountain peaks and sandy shoreline, attract thousands of visitors from around the world each year. Fifteen beautifully constructed huts en route provide overnight accommodation on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“It’s beginning to be seen as an economic driver in Powell River,” says Eagle Walz. “It’s the biggest recreational tourism resource we have.”

Walz is a trailblazer, one of a handful of outdoor enthusiasts who in 1992 realized that accessible old growth on the Upper Sunshine Coast was fast disappearing. They formed the Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society (PRPAWS), a non-profit committed to setting aside protected areas on a trail sufficiently unique to lure locals and tourists alike.

Eagle Walz in his element, hiking the Sunshine Coast Trail. Walz is a co-founder of the Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society, the non-profit behind the trail’s creation and upkeep.

PRPAWS mobilized volunteer work parties and began connecting the bushwhacked paths, deactivated roads, and disused railway grades left behind by a century of logging. In some places that meant constructing bridges – some 120 feet long – to ford creeks and rivers. They found enduring allies in a group of bloody old men, otherwise known as the BOMB (Bloody Old Men’s Brigade) squad. Comprising mostly retirees, many of whom practiced their trades at Powell River’s paper mill, the BOMB squad helped build bridges and huts, and are still counted upon for help in the trail’s never-ending maintenance.

The first time I interviewed Eagle for a story back in 2000, he was fending off criticism from a variety of sources over liability issues and the environmental concerns about sensitive wildlife areas. Walz and his cohorts had run into a host of jurisdictional challenges, too. Crown forest land, private land owned by logging companies, and Tla’amin Nation land are among the eight jurisdictions through which the trail crosses.

Seventeen years ago, he addressed those questions with a question of his own: “Would the trail have been built if we’d settled all these issues first?”

When I caught up with Eagle earlier this year, that question at least, appeared to have been answered. “You couldn’t start this trail now and try and make this happen,” says Eagle. “But that doesn’t mean the logging companies won’t stop logging. Western Forest Products, with their tree farm licence, they are the biggest interest. We manage to work together and eke out considerations. I only wish it would be a bigger buffer along the trail than we get most of the time.”

That buffer can be from 10 to 30 metres, sometimes more. Occasionally, the trail must be relocated in places. Overall, says Eagle, compromise and varying levels of protection ensure the trail’s viability.

“Our vision is that in 100 years, we’ll have no more logging near the trail,” he says. “It will be designated an old growth trail to be enjoyed by future generations. It needs someone to be the champion for it. We’re hopeful the younger generation will take over and certainly a lot of younger people are using it. People of all ages.”

Perhaps more challenging to PRPAWS is pressure on the trail from non-hikers.

“Mountain biking is very popular here, as it is everywhere else. The pressure is always to turn something into something else. But a multi-use trail wouldn’t have the same appeal as a single-use trail. We’re struggling to remain a hiking trail only because that’s what’s given us the edge in the market place. That’s what is bringing people by the thousands from all over the world to Powell River.”

In the meantime, trail maintenance keeps Eagle busier than ever. Ten years retired as a teacher, Eagle says he has time to enjoy the trail, but it’s usually when he’s part of a work party. The day I call him, he’s about to leave on just such a mission – a five-night trip to Confederation Lake, a steep section of the trail in Inland Lake Park, north of Powell River.

Eagle Walz takes in the view from the hut atop Tin Hat Mountain.

It’s a favourite spot, he says, before adding: “I think usually where I’m working, I like that part the best.” Eagle’s other cherished locations include Tin Hat Mountain with its 360-degree views of more than two-dozen lakes; and Mount Troubridge, popular for its magnificent stands of Douglas fir and yellow-cedar old growth.

When Eagle’s not on the trail, he’s writing about it – though not in the way he might have envisaged in 1972, when he moved to Powell River to write poetry: “I write hundreds and hundreds of emails,” he says in a deadpan voice. “That’s basically the extent of my writing.”

  • Visit http://sunshinecoast-trail.com/ for everything you need to know about planning a trip, including the definitive guide to the trail, written by – who else? – Eagle Walz.

Desert delights in Tucson

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Sonoran desert

The pigs attacked shortly after dawn.

The first indication was a dust cloud billowing from the bushes beyond the swimming pool, closely followed by deep, guttural belching.

Javelina pigs are native to the American southwest, extremely shortsighted, and smell like skunk. Perhaps for the last two reasons, they seem to be permanently agitated. Thankfully for us, they were attacking each other in what turned out to be a short-lived domestic dispute.

Short-sighted, smelly and agitated - Javelina pigs.

Short-sighted, smelly and agitated – Javelina pigs.

“If they approach you on a trail, they probably can’t see you,” said our guide, Koi. “Make some noise and they’ll go away.”

Koi works for Southwest Trekking, a professional guide service that offers guests of the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Hotel free sunrise walks into Tucson Mountain Park. The 6 a.m. start might hurt a little on vacation, but the reward is a fascinating introduction to the unique landscape of the Sonoran Desert.

This is the only place where the saguaro cactus grows wild and many were blooming thanks to nightly thunderstorms during our late-August visit.

“They’re supposed to bloom in May but something’s going on,” said Koi, who showed us another cactus native to the Sonoran Desert, the so-called jumping cholla. The cholla’s stems are easily detached and love nothing more than to reattach to anyone or anything unlucky enough to be close by. The spines are barbed and extremely painful to remove.

Between Tucson and the Mexican border an hour south, the United States’ only population of jaguars roams. I was OK with not seeing one, but we did see several deer, including a buck.

The Marriott Starr Pass: "Too nice," according to Emma Judd.

The Marriott Starr Pass: “Too nice,” according to Emma Judd.

Post-hike, we drank coffee on the Marriott terrace overlooking Tucson, a city I visit for business several times a year. This was the first time I’d been able to bring my family and I had a long list of favourite places to show them: Maybe too long.

The first problem was the Marriott Starr Pass. “It’s too nice,” explained my daughter, Emma, as we floated one more time around the hotel’s lazy river in an inflatable. “Why would I want to leave this?”

“There are wild pigs out there,” my wife, Leah, chimed in. My son, Ryan, conceded that he might be willing to get off his sunbed to play golf at Starr Pass Golf Club: in a few hours.

So it was with some coercion, the Judd family arrived at San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson. When first glimpsed amid dusty farmland from Highway 19, San Xavier del Bac looks like an oasis. Gleaming white with two towers and a cupola, the church is as old as the United States itself and the quintessential example of Spanish colonial architecture.

San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson.

San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson.

Enter through the impressive carved mesquite-wood doors and you’ll find the interior is just as dramatic. Candles flicker beneath an eclectic mix of religious devotion: paintings, carvings, statues and frescoes fill the church, which was built between 1783 and 1797 (replacing an earlier version built in 1700). It has since survived earthquakes, lightning strikes, and leaky walls, and continues to host daily mass.

We lingered in the pews before heading outside to buy sweet Indian fry bread from a vendor in the car park. We walked it off by climbing Grotto Hill, a short walk from the church and the best place to snap panoramic shots.

No one seemed in a rush to get back to the lazy river. We we’re on a roll, so we headed east to the Pima Air and Space Museum. You’d need several days to fully explore the museum’s 80 acres inside and out. And I needed several hours to sort through the 500 photos I took there. Center-stage in the museum’s main hangar is the Lockheed Blackbird, a plane that will evoke childhood memories for anyone who grew up in the 70s playing the card game, Top Trumps. In the aircraft issue of Top Trumps, Blackbird was a virtually unbeatable card. It flew from New York to London in less than two hours, and from Los Angeles to Washington DC in 64 minutes. Nothing could touch it for speed (2,193 mph) and cruising altitude (85,069 feet).

One of the 500 photos I took at the Pima Air and Space Museum.

One of the 500 photos I took at the Pima Air and Space Museum.

Just a few feet from Blackbird is the Bede BD-5 Micro-Jet, which appeared in the 1983 James Bond film, Octopussy. Almost 13 feet long, the BD-5 was apparently sold in kit form but proved to be beyond the abilities of most homebuilders to complete. (Presumably it wasn’t flown much.)

There’s much to keep you indoors at the museum, and not just the air conditioning. Several exhibitions pay tribute to space travel and World War II, but the huge variety of planes outside on the tarmac were worth braving 40-degree heat to see. Besides behemoths like the Boeing B52 collection and oddities like Aero Spacelines’ Super Guppy (which looks like it should be in an aquarium or a cartoon), there are planes displaying from nose to tail the work of acclaimed street artists and mural designers.

I refused to allow the family back to the hotel until we’d visited my favourite place to eat in Tucson, the Guadalajara Grill on Prince Street. Hand-made tortillas, salsa prepared table-side, a roaming mariachi band, and fresh margaritas served in glasses the size of fish bowls – the Guadalajara Grill by itself is worth visiting Tucson for: Especially if you don’t have to go to work the next morning.

Tucson view

Good morning Tucson!

Back at the Marriott the next day, the male half of the family followed in the footsteps of Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson at the Starr Pass Golf Club. Golf is a huge lure for Tucson visitors, with the city boasting numerous award-winning courses. Many of them cut their prices on mid-summer afternoons for those willing to bear Arizona’s heat. (Tucson is drier and generally a few degrees cooler than Phoenix, 90 minutes’ drive north.)

Starr Pass is no exception. The club features 27 holes divided into three nines played in three different 18-hole combinations. We played the Roadrunner nine, the club’s shortest circuit, which was just as well, having lost all our original balls by Hole 8. The afternoon thunder clouds seemed to be beckoning us inside and at the first sign of forked lightning, we called it a day.

That evening we ventured downtown to Reilly, which combines pizza and craft beer in a century-old building that used to house a mortuary and funeral home. Any morbid thoughts were soon banished by parm truffle fries, roasted crimini mushroom pizza, and Brussel sprouts in sherry, hot sauce and pecan brittle crumbs. Reilly epitomizes the resurgence of Tucson’s downtown, which features numerous bars and restaurants with inventive menus in historic premises restored to former glory. Perhaps the classiest of them all is the Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

A great way to see downtown and learn some of its history is by bicycle with guide, Jimmy Bultman, who runs Tucson Bike Tours. Dive bars, food trucks, a pinball arcade and downtown’s historic neighbourhoods feature in the sunset tour, which I did in April. I enjoyed it so much I rented a bike and covered much of the same ground by myself the very next day.

Jimmy turns kayak guide elsewhere during Tucson’s summer months, but he’s back now. The city is home to a growing bicycle network, including The Loop – more than 100 miles of trail shared with skaters, joggers and horse riders. In the foothills and mountains beyond the city is an extensive network of mountain bike trails.

And for the ultimate in relaxation, there’s always the lazy river at the Marriott Starr Pass. Just give the pigs a wide berth.

yo ma dawgs

If you go:

  • Marriott Starr Pass offers deals starting at $129 a night. Visit marriott.com/hotels or call +1-520-792-3500.
  • For more on the Pima Air and Space Museum, visit pimaair.org
  • Details of Jimmy Bultman’s bicycle tours are at tucsonbiketours.com
  • Desert hiking and biking tours are available through Southwest Trekking at swtrekking.com
  • visittucson.org is a good resource for anyone planning a visit to the city.

Written by nevjudd

February 15, 2016 at 10:23 pm

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YIR1

It was already late December

When I found the time to write

I was going to do it in November

But ‘going to’ became ‘might’

Too busy staging cat selfies to write ... until now!

Too busy staging cat selfies to write … until now!

Now the pressure’s on

Another deadline, I fear

The hours have all but gone

And 2016 is drawing near

cy and ryan

The graduates

2015 was fast

It didn’t walk, it ran

But one memory that will last

Our boy became a man

boys

A fart joke never gets old.

Ryan finished school

With a vision to refine

And ever since the Fall

He’s been studying design

Ferring's travelling A-Team.

Ferring’s travelling A-Team.

He got to share 18

With guests from far away

Ferring’s travelling A-Team

Nan and Grandad came to stay

Birthday boys. 102 candles between them! You do the math.

Birthday boys. 102 candles between them! You do the math.

He still can’t get a beer

19’s the age to be

But that’s another year

So he bought a fake ID!

Our summer was so hot, we went to ... Las Vegas.

Our summer was so hot, we went to … Las Vegas.

We sweltered in summer heat

And here the forests burned

The grass died beneath our feet

But the rains have since returned

Taking no chances with Emma's first driving lesson.

Taking no chances with Emma’s first driving lesson.

Emma learned to drive

Now she wants a car

But her savings took a dive

When she travelled to afar

Walkies with Nanny.

Walkies with Nanny.

Two weeks in the UK

Emma got spoiled rotten

So much packed into each day

Will not soon be forgotten

Just push a little harder!

Just push a little harder!

London shopping, up the Shard

The Thames and fun upon the river

The set of Harry Potter starred

Butter Beer and no damage to her liver

Up on the roof of the Downtown Grand in a cabana by the infinity pool. Like bosses.

Up on the roof of the Downtown Grand in a cabana by the infinity pool. Like bosses.

We visited the U.S.

Despite our dollar in a slump

We like it in the U.S.

Despite that tosser Trump

Can't even go to my bedroom without Donald Trump showing up ... tosser.

Can’t even go to my bedroom without Donald Trump showing up … tosser.

There’s other stuff we did

But I’m running out of time

It’s best goodbyes are bid

And I post this up online

So be well this joyful season

It’s time for me to go

If for joy you need a reason

Here’s a picture of J. Trudeau.

You're welcome ladies.

You’re welcome ladies.